Thursday, February 13, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1960-1979

The 1960s were a time of major upheaval in Hollywood. With the release of Spartacus and its crediting of black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Black List was broken. Psychological horror films overcame the until-then dominant monster trope, while historical epics, spy films, heist films, and spaghetti Westerns were some of the most prominent and popular genres. While Spartacus would be nominated for six Oscars and win four, a charming and unobtrusive film starring Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, It Started in Naples, would be nominated only once, for Best Art Direction, Color. It Started in Naples is a romantic comedy drama about a custody battle between an American uncle and an Italian aunt that evolves into an irresistible attraction. A highlight of the film is Sophia Loren's rendition of the classic song, "Tu vuo' fa' l'americano."

One of the Best Motion Picture nominees of 1961, Fanny is set on the docks of Marseille where the heroine (Leslie Caron) falls in love with a sailor who leaves her pregnant. Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer play the older men who become her surrogate family. A lush romance with a bitter edge, the film seems insignificant next to heavy hitters Judgment at Nuremberg and The Guns of Navarone or the Best Picture winner, West Side Story, but Fanny remains one of the loveliest romantic films of the 1960s. The Children's Hour is another great drama that got swept away by the competition. Both Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn deserved recognition for their performances as friends and colleagues whose lives are torn apart by the lies spread by a spoiled student. The film is surprisingly frank about homosexuality, though the actresses claimed to be unaware of that subtext.

In 1962, an Italian film by Pietro Germi, Divorce, Italian Style, received nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, for Marcello Mastroianni, and won the award for Best Original Screenplay. That a foreign language film would garner nominations in these major categories is already surprising; that the film is extremely sophisticated and subversive makes it even more so. While Italian filmmakers like Fellini, Rossellini, and De Sica still have monumental reputations among American cinephiles, Pietro Germi is rarely cited as the brilliant auteur that he was.

While Shirley MacLaine was ignored in 1961, in 1963 she received a nomination for Best Actress for her role in Irma La Douce, a highly stylized comedy about a prostitute and her guileless pimp who falls in love with her. The film received three nominations and won the award for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score. Another nominee for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score was Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone, perhaps the most underrated of all the studio's animated films. Though shunted aside in favor of more popular - and lucrative - efforts, this Arthurian fable, an American translation of T. H. White's tale of magical education, ought to counted among the finest of Disney's films.

The winner of the Best Original Screenplay award in 1964 is one of Cary Grant's most frequently (and unjustly) panned films. In Father Goose, Grant plays a boozy beach bum coerced into spying for the Allies in the Pacific, who gets stranded with a young French refugee (Leslie Caron) and the gaggle of schoolgirls in her charge. Such a film would probably not be made today - its blend of comedy, romance, and wartime suspense would be considered jarring and perhaps even inappropriate. But the film works, even today when we typically prefer our war films to be serious and dramatic or intensely and bitterly satirical. Father Goose manages to be upbeat despite its wartime setting and convincing despite its farcical plot.

In 1965, The Collector was nominated for three awards - Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Terrence Stamp very much deserved a nomination for his starring role as Frederick Clegg, a lonely butterfly collector who becomes dangerously obsessed with an art student, as did Maurice Jarre for his score. This adaptation of the John Fowles novel is a fabulous thriller.

In 1966, Norman Jewison's Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming received four nominations, including one for Best Picture and one for Best Actor for Alan Arkin, who plays a Soviet submarine officer forced to land on the New England coast when they run aground. It's a brilliantly funny film that plays on American paranoia and vigilantism, but ultimately recalls humanity to its shared senses.

The Production Code was dropped in 1968 in favor of a version of the ratings system that we still use today. This decision had a monumental effect on the American film industry, as it gave filmmakers unprecedented freedom to explore taboo subjects and subvert accepted paradigms. The Best Foreign Language Film of 1970 (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay the following year) was Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a blistering satire of police and government corruption set in the turmoil of contemporary Italy, which was being rocked by both right-wing and left-wing terrorist groups. Starring Gian Maria Volonte', the film is one of the finest Italian films of the 1970s. On the other hand, just because one could make a subversive film didn't mean that one had to do so. The musical extravaganza, Scrooge, received four nominations, including one for "Thank You Very Much," one of its many great songs, and while it may not be subversive, it is quite delightful, with the exception of a misguided sequence set in Hell, which is better forgotten.

In 1971, with five nominations and a win for Best Visual Effects, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, sometimes referred to as the lesser Mary Poppins, received more recognition than Stanley Kubrick's much-imitated A Clockwork Orange. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, based on a pair of novels by Mary Norton, is yet another film that demonstrates the incredible technical mastery of the Disney animators and effects artists. It blends live-action and animation in a story, far darker in tone than Mary Poppins, about an apprentice witch and the refugee children staying with her during the second World War. Had the award for Best Dance Direction not been been discontinued several decades before, this film would have been a shoo-in. Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, one of the few of the great master's films to receive recognition from the Academy, was also nominated in 1971, for Best Costume Design. Starring Dirk Bogarde, the film is a haunting meditation on death, beauty, and impotence.

Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, is one of the films I most love to recommend. It's smart, sophisticated, ruthlessly funny, and extremely creepy. In 1972, it received four nominations, including two for its stars who both give truly brilliant performances, but failed to win any of them. It's perhaps because of this that the film has become undeservedly obscure.

In 1975, Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute was nominated for the award for Best Costume Design. Though it was originally made to air on Swedish television, it was given a theatrical release in the United States and was therefore eligible for the Oscars, making it, as far as I'm aware, the only made-for-television film to receive an Oscar nomination. Bergman's brilliant adaptation is much more than a cinematic staging of Mozart's great opera. It's a film that explores the magic of performance, theatrical, cinematic, and musical.

While it's probably debatable whether The Turning Point, which garnered no less than eleven nominations in 1977, could really be considered a forgotten film, the only scene which seems to continue to exist in pop culture is the one in which Anne Bancroft throws a drink in Shirley MacLaine's face. The Turning Point is a lot more than that. It's one of the finest ballet films ever made, not to mention it was Mikhail Baryshnikov's film debut, one for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor.

The winner for Best Original Screenplay in 1979 was Breaking Away, a comedy drama about four disenchanted townies living in Bloomington, Indiana, with no idea what to do with their lives
 after high school. This film is particularly ripe to be rediscovered now, since, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, so many young people are similarly trapped in an extended childhood for want of employment prospects. Breaking Away also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score (possibly the most confusing Academy Awards category of all time).

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